Deutsche Welle TV item november 2007
Yvo Verschoor on improvisation:
After I have accompanied a film, people frequently ask me which music I played.
When I reply that everything was improvised, they are astonished. They
often recognise pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Ravel or Messiaen.
name other composers whose music I have never played, which astonishes
I like using the romantic and impressionist idiom in my improvisations, but
whilst playing, I often do not know exactly where it comes from. Music,
as it were, hangs in the air. I try to remain open and 'aim my antennae' to
catch music and to be certain I play as well as possible.
Initially, people do not link classical or contemporary music to improvised music, which is generally associated
with jazz. This is strange because much of what is called classical music nowadays started as improvisation.
Traditional composers often improvised for hours before they chose a certain phrase, theme, combination or
orchestration, and eventually wrote it down.
Jazz has existed for more than a century, and during that time several styles
have developed, each with its own specific way of playing, rhythm, timing,
harmonisation, and colouring of chords. Nevertheless, these different styles
have two similarities. Firstly, there is always tension between metrum
and rhythm, so that the music 'swings', which classical music lacks. Secondly,
the role improvisation plays, which is important to each jazz style. In
classical music, the composer usually improvises himself, mostly in his
study, which the public never hear. In jazz music, the performing musicians
usually improvise, not the composer.
In order to improvise in any style, you have to recognize and become familiar with its characteristics.
A rudimentary knowledge of a style is the least that is required.
Therefore, improvising doesn't mean 'just playing something'. Once you feel comfortable with a certain style,
you try to tell your own story and perhaps develop a new style.
Many traditional composers have distilled their own style from studying and copying the compositions of their
colleagues. Liszt studied and transcribed many works of Beethoven. Ravel and Debussy knew each other, were inspired
by the same paintings and poems, and created similar musical images.
It is generally accepted that improvisation is an essential part of jazz
music. What I do is less frequently done. I take the characteristics of
several styles of music, from jazz to classical and world to pop, and borrow
from and cite these for the musical accompaniment of silent films, theatre
or poetry. Experience has taught me that the score under a film wins if
you have a wide musical palette at your disposal. The accompaniment becomes
more interesting when you are limited to one style. I cite and improvise
on works by Mompou, who could recall the atmosphere of Spain with a few
notes; Rachmaninoff's rich, wallowing chords; and Debussy's unique translation
of movement into music. In this way, every emotion, atmosphere and time
can be translated into music.
As a film pianist, you usually try to play music that matches a certain scene, although sometimes it can be very
difficult to know what is suitable. Take, for example, films about ancient Rome or Greece. No one knows what the music
of the ancient Greeks and Romans sounded like. Therefore, whatever music you play is always an anachronism, which does
not have to be a bad thing. A piece of gospel music can have a beautiful impact on a film such as 'Quo Vadis', when
played with the scenes portraying the early Christians. You sometimes find the opposite works, such as playing
Bruckner with certain Charlie Chaplin scenes, which has the result that Chaplin becomes even funnier. By putting
charming music with gruesome scenes, you can make them bearable.
Basically two methods of silent film accompaniment exist. One is that a composer
writes a complete score, which is performed by musicians. The other method
is that the music is improvised. Historically both are correct, as this
was the way films were accompanied. In the larger cities, an orchestra
played the musical score, but in smaller ones, it was usually a pianist
I have strong reasons for a preference for improvised music. The speed of
the projection can vary, shortening or lengthening the film. An improvising
musician can react to this variation in length, whereas a musician playing
sheet music easily becomes asynchronous in such a situation. Improvised
music, on the other hand, can stay as close as possible to the film narrative.
In addition, written scores often create a distance, whereas improvisation
produces a direct and unique dialogue with the flickering image on the
white screen, each time it is played.
Cinema Parisien Amsterdam ± 1925 (www.filmmuseum.nl)